The Hero of the Story

This is the sermon I preached at the early, 8:30, worship service at First Church Simsbury on January 27, 2019. We were observing “Mission Sunday” at our 10:30 service with speakers form the community sharing their testimony in lieu of a sermon.

Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:14-21; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

As I said, the 10 o’clock service will be observing Mission Sunday by bringing in speakers from two community organizations in lieu of a sermon. These speakers were unable to be present at this early service, so you get me! We will still reflect on mission, not so much by lifting up the church’s work in our community, but by turning to this morning’s Bible readings.

The passage from Luke that I read is often referred to as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins to read.

Anyone who has been to a service in a synagogue knows that the Hebrew Bible is read from a scroll. Over time, each book of the Bible is read from beginning to end, each week’s reading picks up where last week’s left off.

So Jesus does not enter the synagogue and search for the particular passage he wants to read, rather he opens the scroll to that day’s assigned passage; who knows, maybe he was the designated reader that day. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 61, verse 1:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”

When Isaiah says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he is speaking of himself, and he is speaking to the exiled people of Israel of their coming return to Israel, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and reestablishment of the temple as the home of God and locus of worship. This is the good news Isaiah proclaims, to Jews held captive by the Assyrian empire.

Over five hundred years later, Jesus reads Isaiah’s words, not to Jews oppressed by the Assyrian Empire, but to Jews oppressed by the Roman Empire. Oppression by empire is the backdrop for everything in the Bible, from Exodus in the Old Testament to Revelation in our New Testament.

So to this point in the story Jesus has just done what any scripture reader would have done in the synagogue on the Sabbath, read the day’s text. But then Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that these are not just words of Isaiah that apply to the exiled Jews, but even as I read them, Jesus says, these words are fulfilled in your life, in your context, today. We might even hear Jesus saying, I, Jesus, am the fulfillment of this good news, I am the embodiment of God’s promised deliverance from suffering.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! Powerful words written in one context, applied in a new context, brought to life through Jesus.

I had an opportunity to think about the power of words and their contexts on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Here, the “text” is the well-known story of First Church and Martin Luther King, Jr.

For two summers in the 1940’s, African-American students from Morehouse College traveled to Simsbury to work in the tobacco fields here to earn money for their schooling.

One Sunday morning in 1947, a beautiful baritone voice carried up to the balcony of First Church where Garland Martin was directing the summer choir. When he inquired about the one who possessed that remarkable voice, he was told it belonged to one of the African American tobacco workers who sometimes worshipped in the church. Though members of the choir protested, Garland insisted that the man be invited up to the balcony to sing with the choir, saying, “I don’t care about the color of his skin, as long as he can sing.” That man, of course, was Martin Luther King, Jr.

King would later write letters home about his time in Connecticut, remarking upon the difference between the ways blacks were treated in the North versus the South. Some go so far as to suggest that King’s time in Connecticut contributed to his call as a prophet, one anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim liberty to the captives.

I was invited to bring this story to two different contexts on Martin Luther King Day. At the first, the annual Martin Luther King Celebration at the State Capital, I was invited to give the invocation. The invitation was extended, of course, because of the First Church-MLK story. Other than politicians, I was the only White person who had a part in the program, and very few White people were present among the hundred or so people in the audience.

I was introduced simply as the pastor whose Simsbury church has a connection to Martin Luther King. I anticipated this, so came prepared to “tell the story.” I had also pondered how the story would be received in this setting. I “unrolled the scroll,” told the story, then continued:

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about telling this story on this day. Yes, it is an inspiring example of someone rejecting racist values to embrace equality and acceptance.

But who is the hero of the First Church story? If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury. If I may be so bold, white people like me love stories that make us the hero, right? When we can identify with the white hero in a story about racism, then we don’t have to confront our own privilege and biases. When we are the hero, we don’t have to own the ways white people like me continue to perpetuate racial injustice by not speaking and acting out more strongly against it.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course. King was the one who, in spite of a racist system that conspired against him, went to college. King was the one who travelled hundreds of miles to a strange land where he would labor long days in the hot sun picking tobacco, work most white people wouldn’t touch. King was the one who ventured into an unfamiliar white church because he knew that he too was a beloved child of God. And King was the one who boldly lifted his voice in praise of the God who leads all oppressed and enslaved to freedom.

Note, recognizing King as the hero in no way diminishes Garland Martin. Martin played his modest role in King’s story well; perhaps he deserves a best supporting actor nod. And this story of King reminds us that we all have a role to play in confronting racism. But make no mistake, Martin Luther King, Jr. is this story’s hero.

And it is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we gather to remember, honor and celebrate today. With his words, let us pray:

I then prayed a prayer that Martin Luther King had written.

As soon as the celebration at the Capital ended, I returned to Simsbury for the eighth annual Martin Luther King Community Celebration hosted right here at First Church. Here, it was my responsibility to welcome people and again, “tell the story.”  Not surprisingly, the demographics of our Simsbury celebration were the opposite of those in Hartford. Except for a few politicians, and our keynote speaker, Joelle A. Murchison, ours was a celebration mostly led and attended by White people.

Just as Jesus applied Isaiah’s words of justice in his new context, so I now brought the same story, told in the same words to Simsbury:

If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course.

Isaiah’s words confronted the power of empire in both contexts. Similarly, in both Hartford and Simsbury, the story of the prophet Martin Luther King, when properly told with King as the story’s anointed one, confronts racism and the power of White supremacy.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! A powerful story, birthed in one context, applied in new contexts, brought to life through Jesus.

In the second reading, Paul writes: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Jesus says, “Today this story has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that ours is not just a story about Marin Luther King and Garland Martin that has meaning in Hartford and Simsbury, this story of confronting racism and white supremacy is brought to life, is embodied in our lives, through this body of Christ, the church, and we each have a necessary role to play. May it be so.

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Relationship, Respect, Resources: A Model for Mission

uganda school

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 28, at First Church Simsbury.

 

Mark 10:46-52

Some of you know that this summer, with a team from First Church, I visited the clinic we helped establish in Masooli, Uganda. Our Masooli Project board is hosting a fundraising dinner for the Faith Mulira Health Care Center on Friday, November 9, to which those interested in supporting the clinic are invited. So, I have hoped to, in some way, feature the clinic in this morning’s worship service and sermon.

But every sermon should be rooted in the biblical text, so let’s begin with the story of Blind Bartimaeus from the gospel of Mark. In some ways this reads like many stories where Jesus heals someone who is sick or disabled. But there are a number of unique aspects of this particular story.

  • Not only is the blind man given a name, he is located in relationship. Bartimaeus son of Timaeus. It is fair to assume that Timaeus is someone who is known and provides a connection to Mark’s audience.
  • In the gospel of John Jesus heals a man born blind. Because this story does not say this, we might wonder if he wasn’t rendered blind from some trauma, illness or accident.
  • Bartimaeus strongly advocates for himself, repeatedly crying out, “Jesus, have mercy on me!”
  • Many among the disciples try to hush Bartimaeus, believing that Jesus should not be bothered with the likes of him.
  • And, when Jesus invites Bartimaeus to come forward, the beggar shows himself to be quite capable, springing up and throwing off his cloak.
  • And lastly, Bartimaeus simply names his need to see to Jesus, and Jesus responds, restoring his sight.

I suggest that these themes encapsulate an approach to giving that we might call: Relationship, Respect, and Resources.

Think of the ways we might respond to a beggar like Bartimaeus today, sitting on a sidewalk, loudly crying out for help and healing. We might see him as helpless and pitiable, broken and hopeless. In response we might drop some change in his cup, buy him some food, bring him to a shelter, or try to get him into a program that could help him live independently.

But just as we might want to “help” our modern-day Bartimaeus, we might also quietly judge him, wondering if he wasn’t somehow responsible for his situation. And our blame would likely lead us to distrust him. We might wonder if he was trying to manipulate our emotions, or outright scam us. Or, could he be mentally ill and dangerous?

The more we thought about these things, the more we might, like the disciples in the ancient story, talk ourselves out of responding to his need, and just wish he would be quiet.

While thoughts like these might have been behind the disciples’ hushing of Bartimaeus, Jesus thought nothing of the sort. Jesus took Bartimaeus as he presented himself, as a good, capable and competent man who had a particular need for help. So Jesus met his need.

Yesterday, First Church hosted an event put on by the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, called Reviving Justice. Following a spirited worship service participants attended presentations and panel discussions on a variety of justice issues. My colleague, Rev. Damaris Whittaker, was the Revival Preacher. Some will remember Pastor Whittaker; she participated in my installation and has preached here.

Now serving Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Manhattan, Pastor Whittaker has led her church on five mission trips to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island a little more than a year ago. Herself Puerto Rican with family still on the island, Pastor Damaris provides a meaningful connection between her mission team and the people they were serving. They made their first trip there just as soon as commercial airlines resumed service, and they were the first ones to enter with relief supplies in some of the areas they visited. They went door to door, delivering non-perishable food and kits to purify drinking water. As they approached one of the central cities, they passed a hand-painted sign that read, “Los Olvidados,” The Forgotten Ones. Despite the complete absence of any government relief, the residents of the city were unwilling to wait passively for help. When they arrived, the church’s mission team found that the residents had already cleared the streets and highways themselves. Pastor Damaris describes being deeply moved when residents would end every encounter with the words, “We are alive, thanks be to God.”

Relationship, Respect, and Resources.

Note that these mission trips to Puerto Rico have many of the same qualities as Jesus’s encounter with Bartimaeus. The help provided is grounded in a personal relationship and respect. Even as leaders passed them by, like Bartimaeus, those that needed help proved to be faithful and capable advocates for themselves.

Which brings us to our mission to Uganda. Some of you know that the founding of the Masooli clinic began with a relationship between Nancy and Gordon Crouch and Faith Mulira. A nurse in Uganda, Faith fled the violence of Idi Amin’s regime and worked as a nurse’s aide here in Connecticut which is where she met Gordon and Nancy. Faith dreamed of returning to Uganda to open a clinic for people in her hometown of Masooli. And after lots of faith, hard work, and generosity from Gordon, Nancy and many others, the Faith Mulira Health Care Center opened its doors about twelve years ago.

Each year, our local board, the Masooli Project, has raised over half the income for the clinic. But no one from the church or board has been back to the clinic since it opened, until this summer.

Just as many in the crowd and among the disciples were quick to judge Bartimaeus, it would have been easy to question the work of the clinic, especially as the years went by without meeting the clinic staff face to face. In fact we had begun to ask seemingly reasonable questions. Is the money being well-managed? Is the staff well-trained and committed to their work? And most of all, is quality, affordable health care being delivered to those who need it most. Of course there is nothing wrong with these questions themselves, but without the respect that is born from relationships, the questions could imply suspicion and judgment.

I described the way we might react to a modern day Bartimaeus begging on the sidewalk, with pity and a desire to help, but also with suspicion and fear of being taken advantage of. I confess I wondered about these things when we set out on our 32 hour journey to Uganda.

Any doubts and judgements were quickly dispelled upon arriving at the clinic. Not only did we create new relationships, we were able to see the need with our own eyes. And just as Jesus respected Bartimaeus as able and competent, we got to see the entire clinic and its staff as extraordinarily capable. The clinic director, doctors, nurses, pharmacist, lab technician, and business manager were all the equivalent of their contemporaries in the United States, and the clinic functioned like a well-run American community health center.

And like Bartimaeus, through no fault of their own, the Faith Mulira Clinic simply lacks the resources necessary to entirely succeed on their own. Remember, I wondered whether some trauma had rendered Bartimaeus blind, unable to live independently. In Uganda we don’t need to wonder; the country suffered first under Idi Amin’s violent dictatorship, then experienced a series of civil wars that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over decades. Though more stable now, the current government is also a dictatorship, and clinic staff joked with us that they might be jailed if they opposed the government.

I share this background because, like Bartimaeus, who maintained faith, hope, agency and competence despite the trauma that rendered him blind and dependent, so the people of Uganda in general and the clinic staff in particular, have likely experienced trauma unimaginable to us, yet remain extraordinarily faithful, hopeful, capable, and even cheerful. They lack only the resources to be successful on their own.

Relationship, Respect, and Resources.

As I said, on Friday, November 9, the Masooli Project board, of which I am a member, will be hosting a fundraising dinner. A video filmed and edited by son of the church Kirk Scully will debut there, and Karen Callahan, Heather Duncan and I will tell stories of our time there while showing some stunning photographs of our visit (you will see some of those photos displayed in Palmer Hall this morning). Those who attend the dinner will be asked to make a gift or pledge to support the clinic. There is an invitation in your bulletin, and you may rsvp to heather at the email address listed there.

Relationship, Respect, and Resources, a good model for our mission to the clinic in Uganda, an important model for stewardship, a faithful model for our lives, and an essential model for our world.

Hospitality: Who’s Serving Whom?

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 8, 2018, upon returning from a mission trip to Misooli, Uganda.

Mark 6:1-13

Many of you know that I recently travelled to Uganda with four other members and friends of First Church. Our church helped found a clinic, The Faith Mulira Health Care Center, in Masooli, Uganda, about ten kilometers outside the capitol of Kampala. Church members, including Gordon and Nancy Crouch, Melinda Westbrook, and Rev. Kevin Weikel and his family, visited there a couple times, including for the clinic’s opening and blessing ten years ago. Our Mission Board continues to help fund the clinic, but no church members have visited Misooli in the ten years since it opened. So this was a wonderful opportunity to establish and renew relationships, while seeing the extraordinary work of the clinic first-hand.

Our team quickly developed a wonderful rapport with one another, and we shared a deeply meaningful experience together. We now refer to our group as Nile 5 (yes, we know, it sounds like a rock band)!

In addition to myself, the members of Nile 5 are:

  • Karen Callahan who is Associate Director, of the Connecticut Children’s Center for Global Health, and Nurse Manager, of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and member of the Clinic Board
  • Karen’s Daughter Evelyn who has previous experience in Africa, and is currently working on a PhD in London, studying access to public health for transgender people.
  • Professional woman, church member and member of the clinic board, Heather Duncan, who filled the Mom role for Nile 5, making sure we were all checked in at the airport, put our sunscreen on, and ate our vegetables.
  • and Kirk Scully, son of Mark and Ieke, who was our photographer and videographer. Kirk will be producing a documentary about our trip and the clinic.

What a team! We quickly learned that we each made a unique contribution to our work, and that the support we provided one another was essential to our success.

In short, we found a first-rate clinic, delivering high quality health care to the people of Masooli; the staff are well educated, highly-committed professionals. Among the services offered are family planning, obstetrics, neo-natal care including immunization, HIV testing and treatment, as well as primary care.

I have enough stories for a dozen sermons, so you can expect to hear much more about the trip and the clinic in the coming months. And there may be a worship service in October that features our ministry to the clinic. But one particular aspect of our visit comes to mind in response to the lesson from the Gospel of Mark that I read.

Some of our more memorable experiences were home visits we made with clinic staff. The clinic performs outreach to patients in the community, following up on young mothers and their babies, those with HIV for whom compliance with their medication is essential, and others who are being treated for a variety of illnesses.

We saw a range of living standards in Uganda. The clinic professionals represent an educated middle class. There were a number of large houses, many under construction, and we were told that these were owned by wealthy politicians who wanted to live outside Kampala. But we also witnessed abject poverty.

I have traveled in other countries in the so-called developing world, most notably the Philippines, so have seen poverty up-close before. But what I witnessed in Uganda were some of the poorest of the poor, some with no income, forced to dig for roots and vegetables to survive. Though small, the homes themselves were sturdy, made of Ugandan brick, cooking was on small charcoal braziers, and there was no running water or indoor plumbing.

We were quite a sight, three Ugandan staff members accompanied by the Nile 5. I think I can fairly say that this may have been the first time that some of those we visited were in direct contact with white people, certainly in their homes. Many of the homes we visited had two rooms, a bedroom and a small living room. We would all squeeze into the living room, sometimes sitting on a couch, other times cross-legged on the floor. I got in the habit of removing my shoes at the door as was the custom so as not to track the red dirt in from the outside.

There are some obvious connections to the Mark text here, right?

Jesus sends the twelve disciples out into villages two-by-two to cast out demons, anoint people with oil, and cure the sick. They were told to take only their staff and sandals, no food and no money, but to enter someone’s home and plan to stay there! Can you imagine?

Put the sandal on the other foot, and imagine strangers showing up at your door and inviting themselves in. I won’t give the time of day to the guy that rings my bell to sell me windows or lawn care. I’m almost rude. How would I respond to someone saying they were there to cast out demons or anoint me with oil?! And by the way, if you could house and feed me, that would be great!

Yet the disciples were welcomed into people’s homes, just as we were welcomed in in Uganda. Karen assisted clinic staff in making assessments and offered informed perspectives on treatment; Kirk took pictures, and the rest of us simply opened ourselves to the experience as the residents of the homes were being asked the most personal questions imaginable, about their HIV, about birth control, about their children. And yet somehow, these crowded living rooms became sacred spaces.

We don’t have much information to go on in the story of the disciples’ visits to people’s homes. But if I were to say what made our Ugandan home visits work despite the inherent awkwardness of the situation, I would identify three factors. First, we all, both residents and visitors, hosts and guests, had faith in the clinic staff. Second, because of this trust, our hosts were willing to make themselves vulnerable. And third, we in turn, the members of Nile 5, also made ourselves vulnerable to the experience and the accompanying feelings. Faith and a shared vulnerability opened these challenging encounters between strangers to the movement of the Spirit.

Jesus’ direction to the disciples to visit people in their homes came early in his ministry, not long after he had called the disciples. They were still getting to know each other, much less grow into their roles as leaders of Jesus’ mission.  I wonder if Jesus’ intent in sending them out into the villages in pairs was as much to nurture their relationships and their growth as it was to heal the villagers. Certainly I, along with the other members of Nile 5, grew immeasurably through our home visits in ways that will better prepare and equip us for mission and ministry to come.

On the last day of outreach, we met a single mom, Juliette, with three kids. She was HIV positive and at least one of her children was also HIV positive. She had experience as a hair dresser, but had been unable to work because she needed to be home with her kids. They were unable to attend school because she couldn’t afford even the modest tuition to send them. She had no support from family, and was about to be evicted from her home.

Her situation touched me deeply. As our visit was ending I explained that I am a pastor and asked if I could pray with her. She brightened, and called her children in, all of us holding hands in her living room. In my mind, I wanted to deliver a strong, confident prayer, communicating with my words and my tone that her situation would improve. But instead, I choked up, and prayed through my tears. Back in the van, I asked the director of the clinic Roselyn if there was any way we could help. If we donated some money, could the clinic help get her back on her feet. Roselyn suggested some ways the clinic could help Juliette, maybe equipping her to return to work, and I donated 500,000 Ugandan shillings (about $136) on behalf of the church.

Faith and shared vulnerability opened our encounter with Juliette to the possibility of healing and transformation. I am clear that I was changed by the experience which is why I was inspired to approach Roselyn and respond.

Though few here this morning are likely to visit Uganda, or even call upon strangers in their homes, the world we live in today brings us into regular contact with hurting people from different cultures and walks of life. Our little town of Simsbury includes black, brown and white residents, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, immigrants from dozens of countries, gay, straight and transgender, and those with special needs. I invite you to consider each encounter with a stranger as a home visit pregnant with sacred possibilities, that despite any awkwardness or anxiety, presents opportunities for transformation. Rest in faith, and allow yourself to be vulnerable to the other person and the emotions that arise. And share your stories of these encounters with others, so that together, God may prepare and equip us for mission and ministry in a hurting world.

 

 

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